Documentarian Dan Krauss Suggests There Are No Heroes in THE KILL TEAM

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One can only assume Specialist Adam Winfield was hungry for action. Like the rest of his platoon he was extensively trained for a theater of war that offered him no exercise. He spent his time waiting, armored to the teeth in the desert swelter. Stationed in the Maywand District of Afghanistan in 2010, the squadron was among civilians but they were resourceful, and the group’s chain of command decided to harvest battle trophies from the farmers nearby. Who would know? Dead civilians are a consequence of war and why waste equipment and training? When Winfield blew the whistle on his peers and commanders—amidst threats from men he’d watched kill innocent Afghanis—the mainstream media dubbed the squadron “The Kill Team,” and trials commenced to punish the guilty. Yet this whistleblower is not innocent. This moral conundrum inspired filmmaker Dan Krauss to make The Kill Team, a documentary about Adam Winfield’s trial and the bent ethics that facilitated some very unique tragedies. Krauss spoke to me about being politically agnostic, his hope the military will use The Kill Team to train soldiers and what he’s working on next.

SMV: Your last film, The Death of Kevin Carter: The Casualty of the Bang Bang Club, was similarly interested in how pliable morals become in times of war.
Dan Krauss: Yes, and I just wrote a screenplay that swims in similar thematic water [too]. I can’t get into what it is exactly [about] but it draws largely from my experience making Kill Team and the Kevin Carter doc—this idea of morality amidst war—so we’ll see. I’ve just spent the last 8 months working on the screenplay and we’re going to take it out and see what happens.

SMV: Good luck! The Kill Team, more than most docs about war, feels like it does the job of the TV News Special—insofar as it publicizes a lesser known conflict without evident bias.
DK: I always feel like I have to explain I don’t have an agenda. I think there’s perhaps a presumption the film has some sort of political intent. Like maybe, it’s anti-military or it’s trying to expose the military as occupied by murderous thugs. None of that is true. It’s a difficult thing to convince people of when the testimony in the film has an incendiary direction. People say upsetting things in the film and so viewers have asked if I put together a collection of talking points, but I’m more interested in the moral crisis in the context of war. I was aiming for something deeper. I’m politically agnostic as a filmmaker. I want Kill Team to appeal to audiences of any political leaning. I don’t feel your political affiliation or beliefs should have any bearing on how you absorb this film. I think this is about something more universal. I know someone dubbed this “the doc the US Army doesn’t want you to see,” but I would love for the Army to use this film to train officers. When a plane crashes we try to reassemble the pieces to learn how to avoid disaster: This is analogous. A disastrous event occurred and we can put the pieces back together and figure out how to prevent it from happening again.

SMV: So you’re not trying to save Adam Winfield from a heftier prison sentence?
DK: No. I didn’t intend to make the “Free Adam Winfield” film. I slowly revealed the subject has more culpability than people may have initially understood. That’s part of the tragedy of the story. Adam recognizes he has some responsibility in what happened, and his parents fight for his freedom and want to believe the best, but Adam has become mature in ways that enable him to cope with the reality his parents can’t. He’s haunted by the fact he could have done more and perhaps should have done more (to prevent tragedy). Obviously some reviews take the wrong message from the film, but I’m not absolving Adam from guilt. I’m trying to depict a young guy trapped because his impulse to do the right thing did not lead to the outcome he expected. He’s faced with a set of choices that all result in disaster. How do you make a choice when every outcome you conceive is bad? The attorney says in the first scene, “he is not clean gloved.” This is not the story of a wrongly imprisoned man. It’s about a kid wrestling with what he could have done differently and one of many of the tragedies here is that Adam has to live with this. That’s not a tragedy like the loss of a loved one—which is what people in Afghanistan have suffered as a result of these events—but it is a piece nonetheless.

SMV: Documentarians tend to be complicit with their subjects somehow—not to dig in the dirt but isn’t there someway you, as a documentarian, are also “not clean gloved?”
DK: This is something doc makers face on any film they undertake. You tend to drink the Kool-aid of any subject you're spending time with. You are, definitely and by necessity, empathetic with what they’re doing. It’s important to draw a distinction between empathy and advocacy. Just because I feel the emotions and represent what the family is enduring does not mean I’m lobbying for Adam’s innocence. One of Adam’s great fears was that I’d lionize him or make him into a victim, instead of situating him in the moral haze that is his reality. The truth is much more difficult. A film that lobbies for guilt or innocence is not the goal: people are multifaceted, contradictory, complex and I desperately wanted to embrace the complexity and not go towards simpler storytelling.

The Kill Team hits select theaters July 25th via Oscilloscope Laboratories.

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